PR Pioneer Patrice Tanaka Interview

Originally written and posted on

IPR is featuring some of the many AAPI pioneers who impacted the field of public relations in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month.

IPR sat down with Patrice Tanaka, Chief Joy Officer of Joyful Planet LLC, to discuss her storied career and perspectives on the future of the PR industry.

IPR: I saw that a management buyback led to the founding of your first agency, PT&Co. What were your thoughts and feelings as you led that charge? What are some of the major challenges you faced?

Patrice: I never wanted to be an entrepreneur or have my own PR agency! I consider myself more of an accidental and reluctant entrepreneur. The only reason I led the management buyback was because our biggest client came to see me one day and said, “We love you guys, but our senior management thinks there’s a recession coming and we’ve been instructed to cut expenses across the board, including your agency’s services.” I knew that if I told my boss at Chiat/Day that we were losing our biggest client, he would make me terminate the three people I had working full-time on the account. Leading the management buyback, involving 12 colleagues, was my solution to avoid having to terminate three dear colleagues. Starting PT&Co. was just a creative solution to a problem not a dream of mine.

We started our employee-owned PR agency in July of 1990, which we later learned was the “official start” of the recession of 1990-91. Within six months, we lost half of our billings. When an agency loses half of its income you have to cut staff costs, accordingly. But, because we were an employee-owned PR agency, it was going to be impossible to reduce staff costs by 50%. If we did, it would only be a matter of months before we’d have to shut down our new agency. I believed that the best course of action was for each of us to take a bigger pay cut and just focus on rebuilding the lost billings. We focused so hard that between January 1991 and December 1991 we grew 100% and bounced back up to the same billings level that we were 18 months earlier when we started the agency, and we were intact. We hadn’t laid anyone off during the recession.

We still had a big challenge in that we were a no-name startup agency in NYC where there are thousands of established PR agencies. We needed to distinguish PT&Co. from every other PR agency to give prospective clients a reason to hire us and prospective employees a reason to come work for us even though we weren’t paying the highest salaries. I believed the most cost-efficient way for us to do this was to simply communicate who we were as an agency, what we were committed to doing and how we served the community-at-large. Today, this would be called a “business purpose.” Our business purpose in 1991 was “PT&Co. is committed to creating great work, a great workplace and great communities that work,” i.e., healthy, sustainable communities within and beyond our workplace through the campaigns we created for clients. This business purpose helped us to attract great clients like American Express, Avon, Charles Schwab, Dyson, Girl Scouts of the USA, Godiva, Liz Claiborne, Mercedes Benz, Microsoft, Target, Wines from Rioja (Spain), Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, among others. These are clients for whom we won hundreds of awards for PR campaigns we created, including many that addressed important social and health issues like domestic violence, literacy, financial literacy, drug abuse, breast health, among others.

IPR: I also see that, among other great philanthropic efforts, you’ve been a Trustee of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York since 1997. Why that organization? What special ties do you have to that cause?

Patrice: I grew up in Hawaii and was a Girl Scout from 5 to 18 years of age. When I moved to NYC in my early 20s, after I co-founded PT&Co., I was honored by the Girl Scouts of Greater New York (GSGNY) as a “Woman of Distinction” in 1996 and shortly after that, in 1997, I was invited to join their board of directors. I loved working for the oldest and largest, girl-serving organization dedicated to leadership development. I’ve thought about rotating off the GSGNY board many times over the past 25 years, but the importance of achieving gender equity has only increased over the years and I am committed to seating more women at every leadership table. I want to create a world that is more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said about us: “The Girl Scouts are a force for desegregation.”

I believe that Girl Scouts, which is focused on girl leadership development, is the biggest pipeline for our next generation of women leaders. Hillary Clinton once said that the full participation of women and girls in society is the great unfinished business of the 21st century…and we must finish this business!

IPR: Needless to say, a lot of different topics (mistreatment and inequality toward BIPOC, AAPI hate and violence, internal communications, sustainability, etc.) have come to the forefront over the past few years. Which topic or topics do you think communicators should be focused on for future success? What do you think will impact the future of communications the most?

Patrice: We should be using our talent and expertise to communicate that every individual and organization has a responsibility to fight for justice and equality in our country and the world. Good communications can inspire individuals and organizations to take up this charge. Sometimes public relations professionals only think of themselves as “story tellers.” We shouldn’t limit ourselves to just being story tellers. We can create stories and be “story makers” and “community builders.”

I left PR in August of 2015 and started my consultancy, Joyful Planet LLC, focused on helping individuals and organizations discover and actively “live” or “operationalize” their purpose to unleash greater success, fulfillment and joy in their personal lives, workplaces, and communities. I am focused on this work because the two most important things I ever did in my career and life was to 1) articulate the “business purpose” of my first PR agency, which helped us to become the #1 Most Creative PR Agency and the #2 Best Place to Work in the country within eight years; and 2) discover and actively live my “life purpose” to choose joy, be mindful of that joy, and share joy with others for 20 years now and this has brought me unimaginable joy. Living my purpose is the reason I started Joyful Planet to help others leverage their talents, expertise, and passion in service of other people and our planet. This is my vision of how 7.9 billion people can contribute to creating a more joyful planet.

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